Most vaginal discharge is fluid made by glands in the vagina and cervix. This fluid carries away bacteria and dead cells and serves as an important housekeeping function of the female reproductive system. Usually this fluid or discharge is completely normal and varies in color or quantity based on the time in your menstrual cycle when it is produced. For example when you are ovulating, breastfeeding, pregnant or sexually aroused, you are more likely to notice increased vaginal discharge. Most normal discharge is clear or white in color and may appear yellow when dried on your underwear.
So when should you be worried and call your doctor?
Call your doctor if your discharge all of a sudden develops a strong fishy odor (insert your own joke here, although for women who experience this type of discharge, it’s no laughing matter). Especially if this odor becomes more prominent with intercourse or after your menstrual cycle, you may have something called bacterial vaginosis. Often women notice this after a course of antibiotics. Bacterial vaginosis is not a sexually transmitted disease but rather a disruption in the normal vaginal flora. This can be easily treated with a course of antibiotics.
Does it itch so much that you can't stop scratching and you look like you have ants in your pants? This may be a yeast infection, but check with your doctor first. Yeast infections can follow a course of antibiotics and are more common in pregnancy and women with diabetes. A yeast infection is not a sexually transmitted disease and can usually be treated with a course of anti fungal medications that comes in a pill or vaginal cream form, although generally we suggest you try the cream first during pregnancy, as diflucan (the pill) has been associated with birth defects at high doses.
If you have new onset discharge and pelvic pain, especially if you also have a fever or a new sexual partner, then you should notify your doctor right away. Heavy vaginal discharge associated with pelvic pain could be concerning for a sexually transmitted disease like gonorrhea, chlamydia, trichomoniasis and/or pelvic inflammatory disease. If you are concerned about a sexually transmitted disease, you should have an evaluation immediately because long term exposure to an STD like gonorrhea or chlamydia can cause infertility by scarring your fallopian tubes.
Also remember to avoid heavily perfumed soaps or lotions which can contribute to vaginal irritation and abnormal discharge. Douching can also contribute to abnormal vaginal discharge by destroying the healthy bacteria in the vagina. If you are hypersensitive, then be careful about the type of laundry detergent and the kind underwear you choose- tight clothing, thongs and certain materials (non cotton) can contribute to irritation/ discomfort in the vaginal area.
Ultimately, all women have vaginal discharge, but if you sense something abnormal down there and are not sure, you should visit your doctor. Remember your vaginal health is important!